Ma Rainey's Black Bottom review: A fitting swan song for Chadwick Boseman
Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis hit it out of the park in this Jazz Age chamber drama
Just a few weeks back, we got a black-and-white chronicle of a less discussed screenwriter behind a widely discussed film. In this week's release, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, the central subject is also a less familiar figure, except this time, one doesn't have to read up much on the Jazz Age. The film also marks the final appearance of Chadwick Boseman. This is not only a respectful tribute to a great Blues legend but also a fitting swan song for an actor who left us way too early.
Director: George C. Wolfe
Cast: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo
Streaming on: Netflix
One of the things that works in favour of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom - the title is a reference to a song by Blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) - is that unlike Mank, Ma Rainey is less of a biopic and more of a depiction of a situation - a volatile one at that. Be it in cinema or music, creative differences between the passionate and the less passionate have often led to unpleasant confrontations and scandals.
In Ma Rainey, the clash is not only between the stubborn "Mother of Blues" and the white managers for whom she has to record songs with much reluctance, but also with a trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman), who has his own issues stemming from a devastatingly traumatic childhood experience. Levee is a fuse ready to blow at the slightest provocation. He is also ambitious - he wants to start his own band and write his own songs. He has his own ideas on how to play Ma Rainey's song, which doesn't sit well with her or her band members, who would rather play the music the way she likes it.
But Ma Rainey, the film, is also about the black struggle and the exploitation of black artists by white men. And it's about the celebration of music and its therapeutic effects. It's also a queer drama to a certain degree. And it wants to cheer and encourage those born with physical defects. Ma Rainey has a nephew who has the same problem as Colin Firth's character in The King's Speech. These characters carry a lot of baggage. They've had enough of people mistreating them, and they don't intend to dance to the tunes of the white man. They live life on their terms, even if it means making minor compromises here and there. In one scene, Ma Rainey walks in like a queen and wouldn't start a song unless she has a bottle of Coca Cola.
The entire film is very much a chamber drama. The actors sound like they are in a play because the film is an adaptation - written by Ruben Santiago Hudson - of a well-known play penned by the late playwright and screenwriter, August Wilson. The material bears a strong resemblance to the 2016 film Fences, another film based on both Wilson's play and screenplay. The two films also share Denzel Washington as a producer.
As with most films adapted from plays, Ma Rainey is set mostly indoors and driven heavily by dialogues. The characters rarely step out of the studio they rehearse in. But that doesn't mean we never get a taste of the exteriors. The production design is top-notch, and so is the photography, evoking details of the period beautifully. There is equal attention given to the exteriors and interiors. But it's the performers who steal the limelight.
Once again, I'm in awe of Davis, who always takes great care to ensure that she doesn't repeat herself in every film. As for Boseman, he left us with an electrifying final performance. Of that, there is no doubt. There are two powerful monologues containing lines that seem more meaningful now than they would've done had he been alive. They bring up mixed emotions. On the one hand, I'm sad because we won't see him achieve even bigger things, but, it is comforting to know that he went out with a bang. "I just want to finish the last part of the song," he says in one scene. He did, and it is a great song.